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John Brent/Chapter XXVIII

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Short’s Cut-Off[edit]

“Dear Mr. Wade: —

“We are hastening on. I can write you but one word. Our journey has been prosperous. Mr. Armstrong is very kind. My dear father, I fear, is shattered out of all steadiness. God guard him, and guide me! My undying love to your friend.

“Your sister,
“Ellen Clitheroe.”

Armstrong handed us this note at St. Louis. Biddulph, once a sentimental pinkling, now a bronzed man of the wilds, exhibited for this occasion only the phenomenon of a brace or so of tears. I loved him for his strong sorrow.

“It’s not for myself, Wade,” he said. “I can stand her loving John, and not knowing that she has me for brother too; I’m not of the lacrymose classes; but this mad error of the father and this hopeless faithfulness of the daughter touches me tenderly. And here we are three weeks or more behind them.”

“Yes,” said Armstrong, “full three weeks to the notch; an ef ayry one of you boys sets any store by ’em, you’d better be pintin’ along their trail afore it gets cold. That’s what I allow. He’s onsafe, — the old man is. As fine-hearted a bein’ as ever was; but luck has druv him out of hisself and made a reg’lar gonoph of him.”

Gonoph is vernacular for Drapetomaniac, I suppose,” said I; “and a better word it is. Miss Ellen bore the journey well, Armstrong?”

“That there young woman is made out of watch-spring. Ther ain’t no stop to her. The more you pile on, the springier she gits. She was a mile an hour more to the train comin’ on. We didn’t have any thing ugly happen until we got to the river. We cum down from Independence in the Floatin’ Pallis, No. 5. Some er them gamblin’ Pikes on board got a holt on the old man. He’s got his bead drawed on makin’ a pile again, and allows that gamblin’ with Pikes on a river-boat is one of the ways. He sot his white head down to the poker-table, and stuck thar, lookin’ sometimes sly as a kioty, sometimes mean and ugly as a gray wolf, and sometimes like a dead ephergee cut out er chalked wax. She nor I couldn’t do nothin’ with him. So I ambushed the gamblers, an twarn’t much arter midnight when I cotched ’em cheatin’ the old man. They couldn’t wait to take his pile slow an’ sure. So I called an indignation meetin’, and when I told the boys aboard I was Luke Armstrong from Oregon, they made me chairman, an’ guv me three cheers. I know’d it warn’t pollymentary for the chairman to make motions, but I motioned we shove the hul kit an boodle of the gamblers ashore on logs. ’T was kerried, quite you-an-I-an-a-muss. So we guv ’em a fair show, with a big stick of cotton-wood and a shingle apiece, and told ’em to navigate. The Cap’n slewed the Pallis’s head round and opened the furnace-doors to light ’em across, and they poot for shore, with everybody yellin’, and the Pallis blowin’ her whistle like all oudoors.”

“That’s the American method, Biddulph,” said I. “Lynch-law is nothing but the sovereign people’s law, executed without the intervention of the forms the people usually adopt for convenience.”

“With Armstrong for judge, it may do,” said Biddulph.

“After that,” continued Armstrong, “we got on well, except that the old man kep on the stiddy tramp up an’ down the boat, when he warn’t starin’ at the engyne, and Ellen couldn’t quiet him down. He got hash with her, too, and that ain’t like his nater. His nater is a sweet nater, with considerable weakenin’ into it. Well, when we got here, I paid their ticket plum through to York out of my own belt, and shoved a nest er dimes into the carpet-bag she asked me to buy her. But money wunt help the old man. I don’t believe anything but dyin’ will. I never would have let ’em go on alone ef I hadn’t had my own Ellen, and all my brother Bill’s big and little ones to keep drivin’ for. Now, boys, I git more ’n more oneasy the more I talk about ’em; but I ken put you on the trail, and if Mr. Brent is as sharp on trails where men is thick, as he is where men is scerce, and if she’s got a holt on him still, he’ll find ’em, and help ’em through.”

“That I will, Armstrong,” said Brent.

And next morning we three pursued our chase across the continent.

At New York another hurried note for me.

“We sail at once for home. My father cannot be at peace until he is in Lancashire again. Don’t forget me, dear friends. I go away sick at heart.

“ELLEN CLITHEROE.”

They left me, — the lover and the ex-lover, — and followed on over seas.

I had my sister’s orphans to protect and my bread to win. The bigger the crowd, the more to pay tribute to an Orson like myself. I fancied that I could mine to more advantage in New York than at the Foolonner. There are sixpences in the straw of every omnibus for somebody to find.

I am not to maunder about myself. So I omit the story how I saw a vista in new life, hewed in and took up a “claim,” which I have held good and am still improving.

Meantime nothing from Brent, — nothing from Miss Clitheroe. I grew bitterly anxious for both, — the brother and the sister of my adoption. These ties of choice are closer than ties of blood, unless the hearts are kindred as well as the bodies. My sister Ellen, chosen out of all womanhood and made precious to me by the agony I had known for her sake, — I could not endure the thought that she had forgotten me; still less the dread that her father had dragged her into some voiceless misery.

And Brent. I knew that he did not write, because he must thus set before his eyes in black, cruel words that his pursuit had been vain. The love that conquered time and space had beaten down and slain Brutality, — was it to be baffled at last? I longed to be with him, lending my cruder force to his finer skill in the search. Together we might prevail, as we had before prevailed. But I saw no chance of joining him. I must stay and earn my bread at my new business.

Nothing, still nothing from the lady or the lover, and I suffered for both. I wrote Brent, and re-wrote him; but no answer.

That winter, my old friend Short perfected his famous Cut-off. Everybody now knows Short’s Cut-off. It saves thirty per cent of steam and fifty per cent of trouble and wear and tear to engineer and engine.

Short burst into my office one morning. He and Brent and I, and a set of other fellows worth knowing, had been comrades in our younger days. We still hold together, with a common purpose to boost civilization, so far as our shoulders will do it.

“Look at that,” cried Short, depositing a model and sheets of drawings on my table. “My Cut-off. What do you think of it?”

I looked, and was thrilled. It was a simple, splendid triumph of inventive genius, — a difficulty solved so easily, that it seemed laughable that no one had ever thought of this solution.

“Short,” said I, “this is Fine Art. Hurrah for the nineteenth century! How did you happen to hit it? It is an inspiration.”

“It was love that revealed it,” said Short. “I have been pottering over that cut-off for years, while She did not smile; when She smiled, it came to me like a sneeze.”

“Well, you have done the world good, and made your fortune.”

“Yours too, old fellow, if you like. Pack up that model and the drawings, go to England, France, Germany, wherever they know steam from tobacco-smoke, take out patents, and introduce it. Old Churm says he will let me have half a million dollars, if I want it. You shall have free tap of funds, and charge what percentage you think proper.”

So I took steamer for England, with Short’s Cut-off to make known.